I'm a nationally ranked Scrabble player, and I've noticed the best players use a strategy most people are afraid to try

Patty Hocker/North American Scrabble Players AssociationThe author at the 2018 North American Scrabble Championship.
  • I’m a tournament Scrabble player, and people often ask me how they can improve their Scrabble skills.
  • I’ve noticed that beginner players are often afraid of using one of the most useful tactics in the game: exchanging your tiles.
  • Even though it doesn’t score any points, exchanging your tiles can rid you of bad letters and set you up for high-scoring moves in the future.

Scrabble is one of the most beloved board games of all time, with millions of people worldwide delighting in its mix of language and strategy.

Yet for all the people who have played a game of Scrabble before, I’d wager that most of them are overlooking one of the most useful tactics in the game.

Take it from me: I’m a nationally-ranked Scrabble player, having played in tournaments since I was 16. Most recently, I competed in the 2018 North American Scrabble Championship in Buffalo, New York.

When people ask me how they can improve their Scrabble skills, I recommend a strategy that beginner players are often afraid to use: sacrificing your turn to exchange some (or all) of your tiles.

Sometimes your best move is to play nothing at all

Exchanging tiles isn’t an option that many inexperienced Scrabble players consider. Casual players may not even be aware you’re allowed to do it. But it’s right there in the rulebook: at any point in the game, a player can use their turn to replace any number of the letters on their rack with new ones from the bag, provided there are at least seven letters left.

Of course, exchanging tiles means you score zero points for that turn, which is why so many players bristle at the thought of it.

But there are many situations when exchanging tiles is clearly the right thing to do.

Imagine it’s the first turn of the game and you are looking at the letters AEFIIOO on your rack:

Scrabble rackMark Abadi/Business InsiderTop Scrabble players would opt to exchange tiles in this situation instead of playing ‘if,’ ‘foe,’ or ‘oaf.’

There aren’t too many words you can make with these letters. An inexperienced player might be compelled to play a short word like “if” or “foe” for 10 or 12 points (the first move of the game is always doubled).

But that’s not what an expert would do. That’s because good Scrabble players aren’t just thinking about the current turn – they’re also considering how each potential move will affect their ability to score points on future turns. In this example, playing a word like “if” or “foe” would drastically reduce your chances of scoring well on your next turn.

Look at the letters you would be left with if you did something like that: “If” leaves you with AEIOO, while “foe” leaves you with AIIO. Either way, you’ll be left with all vowels. When you draw your replacement tiles, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with a rack of six or seven vowels on the next turn, and that’s every Scrabble player’s worst nightmare. You’ll be forced into making a low-scoring move for at least one more turn, and possibly several more turns to come.

Instead, many top Scrabble experts would elect to trade in all seven of their letters and start fresh with a new set of tiles. Those experts are playing the long game – they know that by trading tiles, they will likely score enough on the second turn to make up the lost points from the first turn. After all, if your first two turns give you zero points and 30 points, you’re in better shape than having scored 10 and 10.

The same logic applies when your rack is overloaded with high-point, clunky consonants that don’t combine well with each other:

Scrabble tiles rackMark Abadi/Business InsiderThis rack has too many clunky, high-point letters on it. If you play something like ‘husk,’ you’ll be left with three tough consonants to work with.

Sure, you could play something like “bush” or “husk” or “hub” and score around 20 points. But you’d be left with some combination of BVW or KVW, neither of which sounds very promising for your next turn. And, if your draw from the bag were to land you another clunky consonant like F or G, you’d be in an even worse situation.

On the other hand, an experienced player would know it’s worth sacrificing the points to get rid of the worst of those letters. Most experts would hold onto S or SH – letters that blend well with other letters no matter what you draw – and throw the other five tiles in the bag. As long as you have average luck with the replacement tiles you draw, you’ll be in much better shape than you were before.

Exchanging tiles isn’t something that skilled players do every game, but it’s a valuable tool you shouldn’t be afraid to use when the situation arises. Although it may seem counter-intuitive at first, sometimes the best play is the one that doesn’t score any points at all.

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